Men pass a smoke between them, pinching the handmade cigarette with their thumb and forefinger, as if it’s a spliff, but it’s tobacco. A kind that gets them a little high, but not really, and the taste is harsh and they spit out of the sides of their mouths as they walk the long stretch of road. The sky is low and threatens to break. Women with heavy sacks on their backs hitchhike when the rain comes down in sheets, and I turn to our driver and say, Does this happen often? The rain, he says. No, women hitchhiking. Isn’t it dangerous? He and our tourguide exchange some words in a local dialect, and the driver says, no, this is the way.
Fijians are self-sufficient, they tell me. They build their own homes, cultivate their own food and hunt for the meat and fish they desire. They have precisely what they need, and often save for minor luxuries: a Seiko watch, a television, clothing with a brand name.
We’ve just left Lautoka Market, where fruit is sold by the heap rather than the kilogram. Rows of pineapple, cassava root, kava, taro, mangoes and bananas stretch as far as they eye can see, and men hold up their silver Spanish mackerel — the catch of the day — and ask if their photograph will be on YouTube. I’m very handsome, one says. Take my picture, another says. They ask me if I’m from Canada or Europe, and when I say New York, they gasp and say what everyone says, That’s a BIG city! Lots of traffic jams, no? I laugh and think about Fijian traffic with its winding roundabouts and cows chewing grass, peering up as cars drive. Sheep and kid goats that scurry into the sugarcane fields when they hear a beeping horn. Our guide tells us that there is no welfare in Fiji, no government assistance — everyone must be self-sufficient, everyone must make their way. The lowest paying job is a sugarcane farmer, which is easy work to get but nobody wants it. Hard labor at $10-$16/tonne? Forget it. They can work in the fancy hotels greeting guests at $3.50/hour. Our driver chimes in and says there are rumors that the rate has increased to $20/tonne because farmers are getting desperate.
I say, Lots of traffic. Too many people, and move on. The market is fairly dark, blue tarp obscures the sunlight.
Our guide purchases ground-up kava as an offering for when we travel to Navala, in the Northern highlands, about 2 hours from Nadi. The village has a population of 700, lives in traditional thatched houses constructed of bamboo, vine, wood and leaves from the nearby rainforest, and like all Fijian villages, one must ask for permission from the village chief in order to gain entry. It’s like your home, eh? Nobody can just walk in uninvited. So we buy this root plant, which is a sedative, the Fijian alcohol, and offer it up as a drink for our visit.
The journey to the Highlands is a rough one. It’s about an hour from the market, and paved roads give way to rock, gravel, and wooden bridges. The 4×4 shakes quite a bit and sometimes, even while wearing a seatbelt, I feel airborne. Rain comes and recedes, as if indecisive, a tease, and when we finally make it to Navala, our guide informs us of the rules. In Fiji, it is “men-first.” Men sit at the heads of the table and enter a home, first. I snicker and think that perhaps this custom is a lot more honest than us Westerners, who feign equality yet women are still anything but equal to their male counterparts. But I’ll leave that for another time.
In the village, we must wear a sarong and no hats are allowed. Men can sit cross-legged and women sit with their legs folded to one side (this gets uncomfortable after a while, and I’m the only one of three women who breaks the rule — I sit cross-legged like the men do). Before we are given trespass to the village and its denizens, we must first meet with the chief (third photo down, the man to the right). Our guide (spokesperson) introduces us by country, reveals what our plans are for the day, and offers kava as a gesture of good faith. The chief accepts the kava, and by way, us, and he proceeds to make a drink for us all to celebrate our visit. Kava is quite expensive in Fiji, and the older the plant (30 years+), the more potent and expensive the drink. The kava is mixed with cold water, sifted with a piece of cloth until the brew is ready for consumption. The chief takes the first cup, then the spokesperson for our group, and then the group (men first). I drink the kava, which is cool, a bit bitter with a strong undertaste I can’t quite describe. My tongue is numb for a bit, and I don’t feel any different. Perhaps I’m already relaxed from being out of the car, which was essentially a miniature roller coaster? Who’s to say.
Next we introduce ourselves to the village elders, and I tell them I work with the Internet, and they nod, and I realize that sounds a bit trivial. It feels strange to even say these words when there is no connectivity for miles. FOR MILES. And somehow this at turns soothes and vexes me, much like how a plane used to in a way. I was forced to disconnect, to not regard my phone as an extremity, and be present. But at the same time I see the smallness of a part of my life. I can’t quite explain.
There is one tribe in Navala with multiple clans, and homes are arranged by clan. Men can’t move, but women can move about once they’re married into their husband’s clan. Fijians emphasize community — the tribe protects and helps one another — so what would take a few months to build a traditional home, takes less than four weeks when multiple hands are at work. Rarely are there beds in the homes, the soft mats and soil make for good floor bedding and I actually feel comfortable lying on the floor, looking up. The thatched roofs and their triangle architecture prevent water from seeping in when the storms come; the rain falls down the sides. While it’s 90+ in the Highland, the interior is surprisingly cool, although there are no doors and windows — only a frame where shafts of light break through.
Navala is a dying breed — one of the few Fijian villages that remains traditional in terms of architecture and custom. There is a Catholic church in the village, as well as a drum (before the telephone, specific, syncopated rhythms were played to contact other villages or folks within the village), and a boarding school and dormitory is on the land, as well. The boarding school houses 100 children from surrounding villages, who live on their own for three 14-week terms. The children sew their own clothes, make their own food, and like the Fijian elders, are self-sufficient. I tacitly nod, for I can relate to a child playing the role of adult, too.
The home, I’m told, is a place to put down your head and rest. There are outhouses that serve as bathrooms, and a separate larger facility for the kitchen, where our lunch is being prepared. We will eat traditional Fiji food — heaps of local fruits and vegetables and freshly-caught fish. The cassava we saw in the market has been skinned, sliced into perfectly-shaped half-moons and boiled to tender. Fresh red papaya attracts flies that the women swat away from bamboo fans. Curried and eggplant immersed in coconut milk, sliced-open trout, tender bitter greens (reminding me of bok choy) are arranged in a semi-circle on our plates, and mountains of rice complete our meal.
I ask if men dine separately from women, or if there is a rule about the chief eating first. Our guide tells us that save for major ceremonies and occasions, the clan eats together. Only children are not permitted to drink kava. That’s the only rule.
I’m always humbled to see people take such pride in the cultivation and preparation of their food, and I’m impressed by how a meal composed of a symphony of spices and textures, could be made without any technology. The preparation is rustic, but the presentation is made with care. I was also taken with the simplicity in which the villagers live. They are not wont for anything. They have exactly what they need and simple pleasures — riding horses, swimming in the lake — seem to complement island life, which is slower and markedly less stressful. While I’m not trying to construct a false sense of idyll, as this is a country with a expensive standard of living juxtaposed with low income, Fijians seem happier with less. They seem happier to have a life that is simple and calm. And I guess I envy them this, and partially dread going back to New York.
Before we left, a small girl with a mop of blond hair ran up to me with a gardenia and asked me if I was married. I shook my head no, and she beckoned for me to kneel down as she placed the flower on the left side of my ear. You’ll be married one day, she smiles, and I nod, hoping so too.